Read an Excerpt
The shadow fell across Uldyssian ul-Diomed's table, enveloping not only much of it, but also his hand and his as-of-yet-undrunk ale. The sandy-haired farmer did not have to look up to know who interrupted his brief respite from his day's labors. He had heard the newcomer speaking to others in the Boar's Head the only tavern in the remote village of Seram heard him speaking and prayed silently but vehemently that he would not come to Uldyssian's table.
It was ironic that the son of Diomedes prayed for the stranger to keep away, for what stood waiting for Uldyssian to look up was none other than a missionary from the Cathedral of Light. Resplendent in his collared silver-white robes resplendent save for the ring of Seramian mud at the bottom he no doubt awed many a fellow villager of Uldyssian's. However, his presence did nothing but dredge up terrible memories for the farmer, who now angrily fought to keep his stare fixed on the mug.
"Have you seen the Light, my brother?" the figure finally asked when it was clear that his potential convert planned to continue to ignore him. "Has the Word of the great Prophet touched your soul?"
"Find someone else," Uldyssian muttered, his free hand involuntarily tightening into a fist. He finally took a gulp of his ale, hoping that his remark would end the unwanted conversation. However, the missionary was not to be put off.
Setting a hand on the farmer's forearm and thereby keeping the ale from again touching Uldyssian's lips the pale young man said, "If not yourself alone, think of your loved ones! Would you forsake their souls as "
The farmer roared, his face red with a rage no longer held in check. In a single motion, Uldyssian leapt up and seized the startled missionary by the collar. As the table tipped over, the ale fell and splattered on the planked floor, unnoticed by its former drinker. Around the room, other patrons, including a few rare travelers passing through, eyed the confrontation with concern and interest . . . and from experience chose to keep out of it. Some of the locals, who knew the son of Diomedes well, shook their heads or muttered to one another at the newcomer's poor choice of subjects.
The missionary was a hand taller than Uldyssian, no small man himself at just over six feet, but the broadshouldered farmer outweighed him by half again as much and all of that muscle from day after day of tilling the soil or seeing to the animals. Uldyssian was a square-jawed man with the bearded, rough-hewn features typical of the region west of the great city-state of Kehjan, the "jewel" of the eastern half of the world. Deep-brown eyes burned into the more pale ones of the gaunt and surprisingly young features of the Cathedral's proselytizer.
"The souls of most of my family are beyond the Prophet's gathering, brother! They died nearly ten years ago, all to plague!"
"I shall s-say a prayer for . . . for them "
His words only served to infuriate Uldyssian, who had himself prayed for his parents, his elder brother, and his two sisters constantly over the months through which they had suffered. Day and night often with no sleep in between he had first prayed to whatever power watched over them that they recover, then, when that no longer seemed a hope, that their deaths would be swift and painless.
And that prayer, too, had gone unanswered. Uldyssian, distraught and helpless, had watched as, one by one, they died in anguish. Only he and his youngest brother, Mendeln, had survived to bury the rest.
Even then there had been missionaries and even then they had talked of the souls of his family and how their particular sects had the answers to everything. To a one, they had promised Uldyssian that, if he followed their particular path, he would find peace over his loved ones' losses.
But Uldyssian, once a devout believer, had very vocally denounced each and every one of them. Their words rang hollow and his refusals seemed later justified when the missionaries' sects faded away as surely as each season on the farm.
But not all. The Cathedral of Light, though only of recent origin, seemed far stronger than most of its predecessors. Indeed, it and the longer-established Temple of the Triune seemed to be quickly becoming the two dominant forces seeking the souls of Kehjan's people. To Uldyssian, the fervent enthusiasm with which both sought out new converts bordered on a strenuous competition much in conflict with their spiritual messages.
And that was yet another reason Uldyssian would have no part of either.
"Pray for yourself, not for me and mine," he growled. The missionary's eyes bulged as Uldyssian easily hefted him by the collar off the floor.
The squat, balding figure behind the counter slipped out to intervene. Tibion was several years senior and no match against Uldyssian, but he had been Diomedes's good friend and so his words had effect on the furious farmer. "Uldyssian! Mind my establishment if'n you can't mind yourself, eh?"
Uldyssian hesitated, the proprietor's words cutting through his anguish. His gaze swept from the pale face before him to Tibion's round one, then back again.
A frustrated scowl still on his face, he let the figure in his grip drop in an undignified heap on the floor.
"Uldyssian " Tibion started.
But the son of Diomedes did not wait to hear the rest. Hands shaking, he strode out of the Boar's Head, his heavy, worn leather boots clattering hard on the well-trod planks. Outside, the air was crisp, which helped soothe Uldyssian some. Almost immediately, he began to regret his actions within. Not the reasons for them, but that he had acted so before many of those who knew him . . . and not for the first time.
Still, the presence of the Cathedral's acolyte in Seram grated on his heart. Uldyssian was now a man who only believed in what his eyes showed him and what his hands could touch. He could see the changes in the sky and so tell when he needed to rush his work in the field or whether time enough remained to complete his task at a more moderate pace. The crops his work brought forth from the soil fed him and others. These were things he could trust, not the muttered praying of clerics and missionaries that had done nothing for his family but give them false hope.
Seram was a village of some two hundred folk, small by many standards, of reasonable size by others. Uldyssian could have paced its length in as many breaths, if that much. His farm lay two miles to the north of Seram. Once a week, Uldyssian went into the village to get what supplies he needed, always allowing himself the short break for food and drink at the tavern. His meal he had eaten and his ale was lost, which left only his tasks to complete before he departed again.
In addition to the tavern, which also acted as an inn, there were only four other buildings of consequence in Seram the meeting house, the trading station, the village Guard quarters, and the smithy. All shared the same general design as the rest of the structures of Seram, with the roofs pointed and thatched, and the bodies wooden planks over a frame whose base was built of several layers of stone and clay. As was typical in most areas under the influence of Kehjan, the windows of each were arched sharply at the top and always numbered three on a side. In truth, from a distance it was impossible to tell one building from another.
Mud caked his boots as he walked, Seram too provincial to have paved streets or even stone ones. There was a small, dry path to the opposite side from where Uldyssian trod, but at the moment, he had no patience for it and, besides, as a farmer, he was used to being one with the soil.
At the eastern edge of Seram and thus nearest to Kehjan stood the trading station. The station was, other than the tavern, the busiest of places in Seram. Here it was that locals brought in their goods to trade for other necessities or to even sell to passing merchants. When there were new items in stock, a blue banner would be raised by the doorway up front, and as he approached, Uldyssian saw Cyrus's night-tressed daughter, Serenthia, doing just that. Cyrus and his family had run the trading station for four generations and were among the most prominent of families in the village, although they dressed no more fancy than anyone else. The trader did not look down on his customers, who were also, for the most part, his neighbors. Serenthia, for example, was clad in a simple cloth dress of brown, cut modestly at the bodice and whose bottom hem ended just above the ankle. Like most villagers, she wore sensible boots designed for both riding and walking through the muddy ruts in the main street.
"Something of interest?" he called to Serenthia, trying to focus on other matters in order to forget both the incident and the images from the past it had conjured up.
Cyrus's daughter turned at the sound of his voice, her thick, long hair fluttering about. With her bright blue eyes, ivory skin, and naturally red lips, Uldyssian felt certain that all she needed was a proper gown to allow her to compete with the best of the blue-blood females in Kehjan itself. The unadorned dress did not hide her curves, nor did it detract in any way from the graceful manner in which she somehow moved regardless of the terrain.
"Uldyssian! Have you been here all day?"
There was that in her tone that all but made the farmer grimace. Serenthia was more than a decade younger than him and he had seen her grow up from a child to a woman. To him, she was nearly one of the sisters that he had lost. However, to her, Uldyssian evidently seemed much more. She had turned down the attentions of younger and more affluent farmers than him, not to mention the flirtations of several visiting merchants. The only other man in whom she showed any interest was Achilios, Uldyssian's good friend and the best hunter in Seram, but whether that was because of his ties to the farmer, it was difficult to say.
"I arrived just past the first hour of day," he replied. As he neared, he caught glimpses of at least three wagons behind Cyrus's establishment. "A fair-sized caravan for Seram. What goes on?"
She finished hoisting up the banner, then tethered the rope. Gazing over her shoulder at the wagons, Serenthia said, "They got lost, actually. They were bound for passage through Tulisam."
Tulisam was the next nearest habitation, a town at least five times as great as Seram. It was also more on the route from Kehjan proper to the sea, where the master ports were.
Uldyssian grunted. "The handler must be a novice."
"Well, whatever the cause, they've decided to trade some. Father's trying to hide his excitement. They've got some beautiful things, Uldyssian!"
To the son of Diomedes, beautiful things generally consisted of strong, sturdy tools or a newborn calf that had its health. He started to speak, then noticed someone walking by the wagons.
She was dressed akin to a noble of one of the Houses that sought to fill the gap of leadership caused by the recent infighting between the ruling mage clans. Her lush golden hair was bound up behind her head with a silver band, allowing full view of the regal, ivory face. Glittering green eyes surveyed her surroundings. Slim, perfect lips parted as the woman, the shoulders of her flowing emerald gown covered by a fur, viewed the landscape to the east of Seram. The bodice of the gown was cinched tight and although her clothing was the epitome of the ruling castes, it left no doubt that she was very much female.
Just as the arresting figure began to glance in Uldyssian's direction, Serenthia abruptly took him by the arm. "You should come inside and see for yourself, Uldyssian."
As she steered him toward the twin wooden doors, the farmer took a quick look back, but of the noblewoman he saw no sign. Had he not known himself to be incapable of such elaborate fancies, Uldyssian would have almost believed her to be a product of his imagination.
Serenthia all but pulled him inside, Cyrus's daughter shutting the doors behind them particularly hard. Inside, her father glanced up from a conversation with a cowled merchant. The two older men appeared to be haggling over a bundle of what the farmer thought rather luxurious purple cloth.
"Aah! Good Uldyssian!" The trader prefaced everyone's name save those of his family with the word, something that always made Uldyssian smile. Cyrus did not even seem to notice that he did it. "How fare you and your brother?"
"We . . . we're fine, Master Cyrus."
"Good, good." And with that, the trader went back to his business. With but a ring of silvering hair around his otherwise clean pate and his scholarly eyes, Cyrus looked more like a cleric to the farmer than any of those wearing such robes. In fact, Uldyssian had heard far more sensible words from the man. He respected Cyrus greatly, in part because of how the trader, more educated than most in Seram, had taken Mendeln under his wing.
Thinking of his brother, who spent more time in this very building than he did at the farm, Uldyssian glanced around. Although Mendeln would have been clad in garments akin to his brother's cloth tunic, kilt, and boots and resembled his brother somewhat in the eyes and broad nose, one look at him by anyone would raise the question of whether he was actually a farmer. In truth, although he did help out at the farm, working the land was clearly not Mendeln's calling. He was always interested in studying things, be they bugs burrowing in the ground or words in some parchment loaned him by Cyrus.
Uldyssian could read and write, too, and was proud of that achievement, but he saw only the practical aspects of such a thing. There were times when pacts had to be made that required writing things down and then making certain that they said what they were supposed to. That, the older brother understood. Simply reading for reading's sake or studying merely to learn something of no use in their daily tasks . . . such a desire evaded Uldyssian.
He did not see his brother, who had this time ridden in with him, but something else caught his attention, a sight that brought back to him fully and painfully the memory of what had happened in the Boar's Head. At first glimpse, he thought the figure a companion of the missionary he had accosted, but then, as the young woman turned more in his direction, the farmer saw that she wore an entirely different set of robes. These were of a deep azure and had upon the breast a golden, stylized ram with great curled horns. Below the ram was an iridescent triangle whose tip jutted up just below the animal's hooves.
Her hair had been shorn to shoulder length and the face that the tresses framed was round, full of youth, and highly attractive. Yet there was, in Uldyssian's mind, something missing that removed for him any desire for her. It was as if she was an empty shell, not a whole person.
He had seen her like before. Zealous, an absolute believer in her faith. He had also seen the robes before, and the fact that she was alone made him suddenly eye the room with dread. They never traveled alone, always in threes. One for each of their order . . .
Serenthia was trying to show him some feminine bauble, but Uldyssian heard only her voice, not her words. He considered trying to back out of the chamber.
Then another figure joined the first, this one a middle-aged man of strong bearing and patrician features who, with his cleft chin and strong brow, would have appealed to the fairer sex as much as the girl would have the males. He wore a tight-collared golden robe that also bore the triangle, but this time above it was a green leaf.
The third of their band was nowhere to be seen, but Uldyssian knew that he or she could not be far away. The servants of the Temple of the Triune did not stay separated long. While a missionary from the Cathedral often worked alone, the Triune's acolytes acted in concert with one another. They preached the way of the Three, the guiding spirits Bala, Dialon, and Mefis who supposedly watched over a mortal like loving parents or kindly teachers. Dialon was the spirit of Determination, hence the stubborn ram. Bala stood for Creation, represented by the leaf. Mefis, whose servant was missing, was Love. The acolytes of that order bore upon their breast a red circle, the common Kehjan emblem for the heart.
Having heard the preachings of all three orders before and not wanting to risk a repeat of the debacle in the tavern, Uldyssian tried to shift into the shadows. Serenthia had finally realized that Uldyssian no longer listened to her. She put her hands on her hips and gave him the stare that, when she had been a child, had made him give in to her way.
"Uldyssian! I thought you wanted to see "
He cut her off. "Serry, I've got to be going. Did your brothers gather what I asked for earlier?"
She pursed her lips as she thought. Uldyssian eyed the two missionaries, who seemed engrossed in some conversation. Both looked oddly disoriented, as if something had not gone as they had assumed it would.
"Thiel said nothing to me or else I'd have known you were in Seram before. Let me go find him and ask."
"I'll come with you." Anything to avoid the dogs of the Triune. The Temple had been established some years before the Cathedral, but now the two appeared more or less even in their influence. It was said that the High Magistrate of Kehjan was now a convert of the former, while the Lord General of the Kehjan Guard was rumored to be a member of the latter. The disarray within the mage clans often bordering on war of late had turned many to the comfort of one message or another.
But before Serenthia could lead them into the back, Cyrus called for his daughter. She gave Uldyssian an apologetic look.
"Wait here. I won't be long."
"I'll go look for Thiel myself," he suggested.
Serenthia must have caught his quick glance at the missionaries. Her expression grew reproving. "Uldyssian, not again."
"Uldyssian, those people are messengers of holy orders! They mean you no harm! If you would just open yourself up to hearing them! I'm not suggesting you join one or the other, but the messages both preach are worthy of your attention."
She had reprimanded him like this before, just after he had stood up in the tavern after the last visit by missionaries from the Triune and gone on at length about the lack of need for any of their ilk in the lives of the common folk. Did the acolytes offer to help shear the sheep or bring in the crops? Did they help wash the mud-soaked clothes or lend their hands fixing the fences? No. Uldyssian had pointed out then, as he had on other occasions, that all they came to do was whisper in the ears of people that their sect was better than the other sect. This to people who barely understood the concept of angels and demons, much less believed in them.
"They can say all the pretty words they want, Serry, but all I see is them contesting against one another, with how many fools they can brand as their own as what decides the winner."
"Serenthia!" Cyrus called again. "Come here, lass!"
"Father needs me," she said with a rueful look. "I'll be right back. Please, Uldyssian, behave yourself."
The farmer watched her hurry off, then tried to fix his attention on some of the items for sale or barter in the station. There were tools of all sorts that could be useful on the farm, including hoes, shovels, and a variety of hammers. Uldyssian ran his finger over the edge of a new iron sickle. The craftsmanship was the best available in a place such as Seram, although he had heard that in some estate farms near Kehjan proper a few lords had their workers wielding ones tipped with steel. Such a concept had far more impact on Uldyssian than any words concerning spirits or souls.
Then someone quickly strode past him, heading into the back. He had a glimpse of golden hair bound up and a hint of a smile that the son of Diomedes could have sworn was directed toward him.
Without at first realizing it, Uldyssian followed. The noblewoman vanished through the back door as if the station were her own home.
He slipped through a moment later . . . and at first saw no sign of her. What he did see was that his wagon was indeed full. There was no sign of Thiel, but that was not uncommon. Serenthia's eldest brother was likely assisting with some other labor.
Having already dealt with the matter of payment, Uldyssian headed toward the wagon. However, as he neared, he suddenly saw a flash of green by the horse.
It was her. The noblewoman stood on the other side of the animal, murmuring something to it while she caressed the muzzle with one slender hand. Uldyssian's horse appeared mesmerized by her, standing as motionless as a statue. The old male was an ornery beast and only those who knew him well could approach him without the danger of a bite. That this woman could do so spoke volumes about her to the farmer.
She noticed him in turn. A smile lit up her face. To Uldyssian, her eyes seemed to glow.
"Forgive me . . . is this your horse?"
"It is, my lady . . . and you're lucky still to have more than one hand. He likes to bite."
She caressed the muzzle again. The beast continued to stand still. "Oh, he wouldn't bite me." The woman leaned her face close to the muzzle. "Would you?"
Uldyssian half-started toward her, suddenly fearful that she would be proven wrong. However, again, nothing happened.
"I once owned a horse that looked very much like him," she continued. "I miss him so."
Suddenly recalling where they were, Uldyssian said, "Mistress, you shouldn't be here. You should stay with the caravan." Sometimes, travelers journeyed with merchants in order to make use of the protection of the latter's guards. Uldyssian could only assume that this was the case with her, although so far it seemed that she was without any escort. Even with the protection of the caravan, a young woman traveling alone risked danger. "You don't want to be left behind."
"But I am not going with the caravan," the noblewoman murmured. "I am not going anywhere at all."
He could not believe that he had heard her correctly. "My lady, you must be joking! There's nothing for you in a place like Seram . . ."
"There's nothing for me in any other place . . . why not Seram, then?" Her mouth curled up in a hesitant smile. "And you need not keep calling me 'my lady' or 'mistress.' You may call me Lylia . . ."
Uldyssian opened his mouth to answer, only to hear the door swing open behind him and Serenthia's voice call, "There you are! Did you find Thiel?"
He looked over his shoulder at her. "No, but everything's here, Serry."
His horse suddenly snorted, then shied from him. Grabbing the bit, Uldyssian did his best to calm the cantankerous beast. The horse's eyes were wide and his nostrils flared; to his master he seemed startled or frightened. That made little sense, for the creature liked Serenthia more than he did Uldyssian. As for the noblewoman, she
She was nowhere to be seen. Uldyssian surreptitiously surveyed the area, wondering how she could have possibly slipped away so quickly and without a sound. He had a fair view for some distance, but all he saw were a few other wagons. Unless she had climbed into one of the covered ones, the farmer could not possibly fathom what had happened to her.
Serenthia walked up to him, mildly curious at his behavior. "What are you looking for? Is something you needed missing, after all?"
He recovered enough to answer, "No . . . as I said, it's all here."
A familiar and undesired shape slipped through the doorway. The missionary glanced around as if searching for something or someone in particular.
"Yes, Brother Atilus?" asked Serenthia.
"I seek our Brother Caligio. Is he not in here?"
"No, brother, there's only the two of us."
Brother Atilus eyed Uldyssian without the usual religious fervor the farmer was accustomed to seeing from his ilk. Instead, the missionary's gaze held a hint of what seemed . . . suspicion?
Bowing his head to Serenthia, Atilus withdrew. Cyrus's daughter turned her attention back to Uldyssian. "Do you have to leave so soon? I know you feel uncomfortable around Brother Atilus and the others, but . . . couldn't you stay and visit with me a bit longer?"
For reasons that he could not explain, Uldyssian felt unsettled. "No . . . no, I've got to head back. Speaking of looking for someone, have you seen Mendeln? I expected him to be with your father."
"Oh, I should've told you! Achilios stopped by just a short time earlier. He had something he wanted to show to Mendeln and the two of them headed off for the western forest."
Uldyssian grunted. Mendeln had promised that he would be ready at the proper time to ride home with him. Generally, his brother was very good about keeping his word, but Achilios must have come across something unusual. Mendeln's greatest weakness was his incessant curiosity, something the hunter should have known better than to encourage. Once started on one of his studies, the younger son of Diomedes lost all track of time.
But although Uldyssian would not leave without his one remaining sibling, he did not want to be anywhere near the Triune's followers. "I can't stay. I'll lead the wagon out to the forest and hope that I find them. Should Mendeln somehow return here without me seeing him "
"I'll tell him where you wait, yes." Serenthia did not attempt to hide her disappointment.
Feeling uncomfortable for a more normal reason, the farmer gave her a brief and merely friendly hug, and climbed aboard. Cyrus's daughter stepped back as he urged the old horse on.
He looked back in her direction as the wagon moved and the intensity of his expression made Serenthia's own countenance light up. Uldyssian paid her reaction no mind, for his thoughts were not on the trader's raven-haired daughter.
No, the face that had burned itself into his thoughts was that of another, one whose tresses were golden.
And one whose caste was far, far above that of a simple farmer.
Copyright © 2006 by Blizzard Entertainment